In an interview this week with CNN, influential South African businesswoman Wendy Luhabe raises the idea of paying stay at home mothers 10% of their husband’s wages as a “mommy salary.” The wages would demonstrate that the work of raising children has societal value, and would make the choice to stay home financially viable for more women. “Money is the currency that we use to define value of a contribution to the world,” Luhabe says, “so why shouldn’t we do the same for the work of bringing up children, which I think is probably the most important contribution that the world should be valuing.” That sounds lovely! It’s also a terrible idea.
First, an important disclaimer: I agree with Luhabe that mothering is one of the most important jobs in the world. Staying home full-time to raise children is a personal decision. That choice, and the work that comes with it, should be respected and honored, and in most corners of our culture, it is.
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So, with that out of the way: Luhabe’s idea of paying stay-at-home-moms for their work is nonsense. Set aside the fact that she doesn’t suggest where exactly this extra money is coming from — the government? the husbands’ employer? a money tree and/or fairy? — and consider the impulse behind it.
If women who choose to stay home — who voluntarily opt out of the workforce — should be paid for exercising that choice, then should we all be paid for whatever we choose do? It calls to mind Lisa Simpson shouting “I choose my choice!” or the classic Onion piece titled “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does.” (“According to a study released Monday, women—once empowered primarily via the assertion of reproductive rights or workplace equality with men—are now empowered by virtually everything the typical woman does.”)
The “mommy salary” proposal also validates the notion that money is the only reward worth working for. Traditional jobs come with two forms of compensation: Salary and benefits. If the benefits are great, you might settle for a lower salary. Staying home with children comes with enormous benefits that parents who work full-time in offices forgo. That’s part of the deal.
We all make career choices with this balance in mind. Two years ago, in a period of personal and professional ennui, I quit my job to take a 10-week road trip by myself all around the United States. It was one of the most important experiences of my life. And of course, I had to give up my salary to do it. It was worth it. It would never occurred to me that someone should me paying me for it simply because it was something I wanted to do, and something that had value.
Maybe someday we’ll conjure up some sort of utopian alternate universe in which everyone is handed cash for walking down the street simply because we deserve money for any decision we make. Until then, this is the difficult balancing act of adulthood. Do you want to struggle as an artist, or rake it in as an unfulfilled cubicle slave? Do you embrace the privilege of guiding your child through every moment of his first years of life, or do you go for a paycheck and professional validation? Do you go for a salary — or for benefits?